The following is the sermon I preached at Emmanuel United Church, Waterloo on February 8, 2015 on Mark 1:29-39 (Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B).
The excerpt from Mark that we read today is an extension of what we heard about last week. You may remember from last week Jesus was in the synagogue and had a dramatic encounter with a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit. Jesus rebuked the spirit and drove it out of the man, amazing everyone. After this event, we find Jesus and the disciples coming home from church so-to-speak. No doubt Jesus is ready for a break after all the excitement, but as the group arrives at Simon’s house, they tell Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law who is in bed with a high fever. As I’m sure a lot of us are being reminded right now, before vaccinations and modern medicine, a fever was pretty serious business– and quite possibly deadly. Jesus walks into her room, takes her by the hand and lifts her up – just like that she’s healed. No sooner is she healed, though, than she is serving Jesus and his followers – there’s an entire sermon that could be preached on how strange it is that a person who has just been near death goes straight to work serving people in a very stereotypical, gender-normative kind of way. (The point that the writer of Mark is likely trying to get at is that the miracle was so complete and instantaneous that the woman was able to honour Jesus and the disciples by hosting her guests as was the custom in that time and place. But… I digress.) The story continues on with Mark claiming that the whole city gathered around the door of Simon’s house – amongst them are all kinds of sick and possessed peoples who needed healing. Jesus heals all those who come – and again, like last week, does not permit the demons amongst them to speak.
The next morning, Jesus woke up very early and left the house before the sun was up or anyone else was awake, and headed into the wilderness to pray. Alone, isolated from everything and everyone, he prayed. Of course Simon and the other companions were like lost sheep without Jesus so they scoured the hills looking for Jesus. Once they found him, Jesus lead them to neighbouring towns where he continued to preach in the synagogues and heal the needy whom he met along the way.
All kinds of people in Jesus time found themselves sick, or afflicted with conditions that seemed absolutely hopeless. Have you ever found yourself watching a TV show and one of the characters let’s out a little cough? *cough* “Oh, it’s nothing, just a sniffle I picked up yesterday.” You know darn well that Johnny’s going to be in a hospital bed – or worse – by the beginning of the second act. There’s nothing you can do about it – it’s predictable. That was life before modern medicine. In reading about the history of diseases and life through history, you can feel that there’s almost a resignation to the inevitability of early deaths due to plagues or illnesses we think of as trivial today. Often they would be blamed on sinful living, or a demon-possession, but we now understand better how disease is transmitted and that there just wasn’t a lot that could be done to stop the carnage without proper treatments.
Today, of course, things are a little different. We haven’t cured every known disease, but in rich countries like Canada, we don’t often hear about our neighbours dying from leprosy or scurvy. Vast plagues only occur in far away places that don’t have the privilege of proper healthcare. Even something like ebola, a terrifying disease by any measure could never take hold here in the same way as in poorer countries thanks to the quality of health care available to us. But… we do have our own afflictions to contend with. Greed, racism, sexism, (and all the other -isms as Ferris Bueller would say), being too comfortable and avoiding change, the list goes on… but in our world all of these problems have one major root: FEAR. Fear affects us like a wound that refuses to clot. You’ve seen how an animal can be unpredictable and violent when it’s injured? Humans aren’t much different, are we?
- We fear that we won’t have enough to provide for our family, or for our future. So we take and hoard.
- We fear that the person without a home whom we see on the street will hurt us, or will take away our idea of normal. So we segregate ourselves in the suburbs away from the downtown and those who are different.
- We fear that treating other genders equally will somehow diminish our own status, so we tear them down until they feel inferior.
- We fear that change will undo the work of generations who came before us. So we painstakingly preserve buildings and social structures that no longer serve a human purpose.
It’s fear that so often holds us back from doing the great things that God has planned for us. I don’t mean that just on an individual level, either. Fear can hold back organizations of all kinds too. The first example I think of is in my hometown of Sarnia.
A local church started an overnight shelter near the downtown area for men who were homeless because they saw that there was a lack of supports in the city. The shelter was doing great work, making connections with their clients and helping find jobs or services. But after a few months some neighbours in the area complained about having homeless people loitering in their neighbourhood while waiting for the shelter to open each night, and brought it to the attention of the city council. The council responded by forcing the shelter to shut down due to a zoning violation. Now the men who depended on that shelter are living on the streets again and church is battling the city in court to try to get the shelter opened again. All of this coming at a significant cost in terms of money, time, and most importantly – people’s well-being.
And of course, fear doesn’t always hold us back from the outside actors like it did in that story. How many times have you heard about a church community with dwindling membership and dwindling finances that would rather huddle in place, unmoved, frozen, and dying, waiting for a miracle than face the possibility of that terrifying word: CHANGE. I know you won’t believe it, but that’s a rather common story amongst mainline churches like the United Church – shocking I know! It seems hopeless on the face of it… but there is Good News.
Back in the story from Mark, we see that healing can happen. We saw Jesus last week, in the synagogue casting out a demon from a man who was possessed. This week we see Jesus in the home of Simon, cooling the fever in Simon’s mother-in-law. We see the mass of people crowding around the door with Jesus reaching out and healing scores. One of my favourite images is of Jesus healing the blind man in the Gospel of John – spitting in the dirt then taking the newly created mud, spreading it across the blind man’s eyes and declaring him healed. Wherever people seek out Jesus in the Bible, we see him healing their wounds, and curing their ailments. THIS is the good news. Wherever Jesus is, there is healing to be had.
It’s also interesting to note that Jesus does not require any of the people he heals to fill out any information forms before healing them. He doesn’t ask whether the person has been following all of the laws of Leviticus, he doesn’t ask if the person is divorced or widowed, or straight or gay. It turns out that Jesus’ healing touch is not only for the pious who go to church every Sunday, or those who put the most in the offering plate – the Good News says that God’s healing touch is for everyone, wherever God is present.
The healing that we see in the Bible story continues with the presence of God’s Spirit in the world today – working to heal the wounds that we suffer. The fear that causes us to react painfully can be soothed by the Spirit at work through our community of faith.
- We no longer need to fear that that there isn’t enough for us because God provides abundantly. Like the loaves and fishes, what looks like a little becomes more than enough when a community comes together.
- We can invite the person who is OTHER into a community of trust where we’ll find that the fear evaporates and we can learn about one another, learning from our differences.
- We can treat persons of other genders like we would want to be treated, realizing that when we are equal, status becomes a non-factor.
- We will discover that changing our ways of being and doing church doesn’t undo any of the work of previous generations, but it celebrates and enhance the works of the past showing new generations the love and healing that can come from our shared faith.
And where do we find the healing power of God? We see it in Jesus’ example – taking time to be apart from all of the distractions in our life. I know there are other people like me in the congregation today, so brace yourself. At some point we need to put down our cell phones … and turn off the computer … and the TV and the radio, and put down our books and take time to commune with God in prayer. And just like the crowds who gathered at the door of the house, all we need to do is be present to God and ask for healing. And in that spirit, let’s pray:
Healing God, we come before you today with praise and wonder at the amazing capacity you have for loving and repairing our souls. We pray that we can be your hands in building the Kindom that was and is being revealed by your Spirit. Especially we ask that you make your presence felt by those who feel a brokenness in their bodies, minds, or souls. We think especially of those people in Nigeria, Ukraine, Iraq, and Somalia, amongst others who are witness to the violence of war. We also keep in our minds those across the world who suffer from crushing poverty caused by the greed of the fearful.
Closer to home, we pray for the missing Air Force officer in Alberta along with his family and the rescuers searching for him beneath the snow of an avalanche.
God, we ask you to be with the members of our congregation who are suffering. And in a moment of silence we pray for the people we know who need your healing touch….. All of these prayers we bring to you with the prayer taught to us by Your son:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.